His career hadn't made much of an impact on me.
In 1996, I covered my first NBA All-Star Weekend for the Daily News. It coincided with the announcing of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history.
I openly wondered how Walton, a guy who spent half his career on the injured list, could be called one of the 50 greatest.
I was assured by some of my more seasoned colleagues that the choice of Walton was correct.
They explained to me that like Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, Walton had shown enough during an injury-riddled career to justify being considered one of the greatest.
I bring this up because in 2021, the NBA will celebrate its 75th season.
I would expect the league to extend its Greatest Players List with 25 new choices.
A few additions will be obvious, like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James.
Others could be just starting to lay the foundations of their candidacy; like Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
And one could very well end up being the 75th team's Walton.
I, heaven willing, will be there to explain to a new generation of fresh-faced skeptics that Yao Ming most certainly belongs.
It's too early to say if the career of Yao, the Rockets' center who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002, will follow the same path as Walton.
Yao is still contemplating treatment options for the left foot he broke during the playoffs. There is a chance that he could miss the 2009-10 season and the words "career-threatening" have been thrown around.
"I'm optimistic about the future and I will return to playing basketball when my foot has fully healed," Yao said in a statement last week.
None of this bodes well. Walton played on, but never fully recovered from his injuries. They affected his entire career.
A seven-time All-Star, the 7-6 Yao is generating an injury history similar to Walton's.
After playing in 244 of a possible 246 regular season games in his first three seasons, Yao, 28, missed 86 games over the next three with various foot and leg injuries.
He was relatively healthy last season, appearing in 77 games after playing for China in the Beijing Olympics.
But on May 8 in Game 3 of the Rockets' second-round playoff series with the Lakers, Yao suffered a hairline fracture of the tarsal navicular bone.
The initial statement was that the injury would be fine in 8 to 12 weeks. It has not healed, leading to last week's worrisome statements.
As we saw with Walton and former Portland Trail Blazers prospect Sam Bowie, some big men are susceptible to repeated foot and leg injuries.
Yao appears to fit in that category, which takes us back to the point of this column.
What if Yao is indeed like Walton and he never recovers to his full potential?
Has he shown enough to say he should be considered one of the 75 Greatest Players ever?
Obviously, a decade is a long time. Some careers are just starting and others have not yet begun.
There is time for a lot of players to establish impressive resumes in the next 11 years, and some players who missed the cut for the 50 Greatest may well be included in the 75.
Personally, considering the past, present and future, I can't imagine 25 players being better than Yao, even if he never plays another game.
I'll admit I was skeptical of Yao when he was drafted out of China, but his consistent improvement quickly made me a believer.
In 2005-06, a 25-year-old Yao averaged 22.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in just 57 games. He missed 21 after surgery in December to heal an infection in his left big toe. He then broke the foot with four games left.
In 2006-07 it was 32 games with a broken right knee and 26 after a stress fracture in his left foot in 2007-08.
But when Yao was able to play, he had supplanted an aging Shaquille O'Neal as the most dominant center in the NBA.
If Yao's career ended today, his resume reads 481 games, 19.1 ppg, 9.3 rbg, .525 shooting percentage and .832 free throw percentage.
The number of games played by Walton and Yao are almost identical, with Yao scoring nearly 3,000 more points but pulling down fewer rebounds and having far fewer assists.
Because of injury, we probably will never know all that Yao could have been, but just as historians of the game knew Walton was one of the 50 Greatest, we'll know that Yao is one of the 75. *
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